Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments from Frogwares is the latest instalment in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a series of adventure games featuring the titular detective that have amassed something of a cult following over the last decade or so. Perpetually underrated by the games media and ignored by the mass market, the series has nonetheless achieved in excess of four million sales on PC with a number of console and handheld offshoots also doing decent enough business. Crimes & Punishments sees Sherlock’s first outing on next gen consoles, with the development team embracing Unreal Engine 3 to achieve a significant leap in visual fidelity since the last instalment in the series.
The game spans six cases, some of which are taken directly from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, ranging from relatively straightforward murders and thefts to complex criminal conspiracies all taking places in and around Victorian London and the surrounding countryside. As Sherlock, it’s the player’s job to find out what happened in each scenario – many of the cases are more substantial than first meets the eye at – and uncover clues and evidence to link the chain of events with a perpetrator and a motive.
Each case is spread over five to ten areas, most fairly small, which the player explores via a third person viewpoint. Obvious clues are found by interacting with the environment through a button prompt or by interviewing suspects and witnesses, but crucial leads often require a bit more effort to uncover. Interview subjects can be examined closely to pick up on tiny details that may reveal something of the character’s backstory in a way that’s uncannily similar to the BBC’s recent Sherlock TV series. Sherlock Vision enables a special view mode that highlights hidden clues in the environment, whilst partaking in a wide selection of minigames, from lock picking to chemistry to target practice, reveals other key pieces of evidence.
The game’s subtitle, Crimes & Punishments, is a fairly heavy-handed reference to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, which Sherlock Holmes is seen reading at various points as the story unfolds. But it’s also a tip of the hat to one of the game’s major subsystems, which requires the player to choose an appropriate punishment for the guilty party in each case. There’s a moral element to this – does Holmes obey the letter of the law and administer an often disproportionately harsh sentence or does he acknowledge that life is shades of grey and choose something more befitting for the crime or circumstances? It’s an interesting addition, although in most cases the ‘correct’ choice is fairly obvious.
However, the game’s Deduction system is where Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments really starts to get interesting. As clues are gathered and a picture of how events transpired begins to come together, Holmes can begin to interpret the details of the case and guess the motives of the suspects. By doing so, a chain of causality – visualised as Holmes’s neurons firing and spawning new connections – is established and once enough information has been gathered to pin down a culprit, method and motivation, the case can be brought to conclusion.
The game’s touch of inspiration is that while there’s a ‘correct’ outcome for every case, it’s possible to construct as many as nine or ten perfectly plausible solutions to each mystery. Identifying the right one becomes a battle between logic and gut feeling, where assumptions that seemed perfectly straightforward half an hour ago are constantly second-guessed. Does that clue really connect the murderer to the weapon or is it so blatant that it must be a red herring? It’s a system that rewards careful reading of documents and listening to every work of spoken dialogue, an area where many games struggle to hold the player’s attention.
Unfortunately, the Deduction system is lacking in real depth. Probably the most significant criticism that can be levelled at Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishment is that ultimately your decisions don’t really seem to matter all that much. There’s no real consequence for choosing an incorrect outcome for a case, save perhaps a slight sense of guilt for sending an innocent man down, and each new adventure all but wipes the slate clean with little in the way of continuity between episodes. The concluding cut scene for each case offers slightly more closure for correctly identifying the perpetrator, method and correct moral judgement but that’s about it.
Similarly, irritating puzzles can simply be skipped to reveal the hidden clue they inevitably conceal. While this is something of a relief for the few minigames that rely on pure trial and error, in the greater scheme of things it’s a bit of a shame. Collecting all the clues for each scenario becomes a trivial affair and there’s never any danger of failure or a sense of having to really work to uncover crucial information that could make or break a case. That said, it’s a far cry from the tedium of painstakingly hovering over every pixel on-screen, trying to reveal that final clue to progress the story, as in many of the 'point and click' classics of yesteryear, so let’s be careful what we wish for.
Ultimately, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments is an accomplished and impressive effort from a relatively unknown studio. It’s big innovation, the Deduction system, feels genuinely fresh and innovative and makes for a far more cerebral and cognitively engaging experience than this year’s other sleuth game of note, Murdered: Soul Suspect. It’s also a testament to the game’s writing and plot structure that almost all of the possible solutions to each case seem perfectly plausible. Despite the nagging feeling that the game’s mechanics are held up by a certain amount of smoke and mirrors, there’s more than enough substance here to hold your attention for the fifteen to eighteen hours it takes to finish the game.